Keswick Film Club - Reviews - Camp 14 - Total Control Zone

Reviews - Camp 14 - Total Control Zone

Camp 14 - Total Control Zone

Reviewed By John Porter

Camp 14 - Total Control Zone
Camp 14 - Total Control Zone
After celebrating 100 years of cinema in Keswick last week, Sunday's audience at the Alhambra found themselves brought sharply back to earth with 'Camp 14: Total Control Zone' (Marc Wiese), a sobering journey into the workings of a North Korean death camp through the memories of the only known escapee.

Shin Dong-Huyk lives in a sparse apartment room with a collection of clothes draped over a side unit, and a thin mattress on the floor where he sleeps. After learning that this man was born into captivity and expected to die there, we see him making the bed, surfing the interwebs, working out which milk to buy, and his pairs of shoes filed neatly by the door. Mostly however we see him sitting on a step, attempting to explain his thought processes to a world which has never witnessed their mother and brother executed while not knowing that, "you are supposed to cry", at this. The movie weaves a complex thread around these and other atrocities, recounted by both captive and defected captors, and the mental scar tissue which still remains.

We hear Dong-Huyk's story plainly, from his birth to escape, and his subsequent work with humanitarian groups. He recounts vile deeds committed against him and the other prisoners, which is shocking without ever seeming sensationalist, but it is the moments of simplicity in his tale which achieve a stranger sense of the reality facing human beings subjected to lifetime incarceration. "I wanted to eat real cooked meat", he gives as his reason for wanting to escape. There is no joking in his voice, only a little embarrassment. "I wasn't concerned with freedom, I wanted to eat chicken and see if the world outside was like he said it was".

He describes candidly how he believed that he was doing the right thing by informing on his mother and brother, and how the idea of a family unit was meaningless due to his camp upbringing. Notions of 'prison camaraderie' and solidarity of inmates are all but invisible here, indeed, we are told that kindness was not something he had experienced until he was placed in a cell with an older captive. The emotions that we take for granted such as compassion (of the torturers), and remorse (of Dong-Huyk after his actions toward his family), are shown to be things removed with relative ease by the institution, a chilling reminder of the dehumanisation involved. This mine of psychological puzzles scatters the edges of the interviews, yet is often side-stepped in favour of the harrowing physical side of human rights abuses, so creating the effect of a humanitarian documentary with unexplored complexities, instead of allowing the unearthed, possibly darker sides of the story to take control of the narrative.

Scenes of camp life are animated in drab colours and slow, smooth movements, with the occasional flashes of red on flags and guard arm bands being the exception. This works with the sketchy style of the drawings to evoke a bleak atmosphere, accompanying the testimonies, yet never trivialising them.

Dong-Huyk's adjustment to life in South Korea is portrayed as anything but easy as we watch his actions in and out of the media spotlight. He eats in a cafe on one long, empty table while the other bench is full of laughing children. He walks the city alone, and we watch his face in reflection looking out of a train window. People demand interviews with him in languages he doesn't understand, stand next to him for a second to take a photograph together, and troops of American teens drumroll on boxes while he looks on from the sidelines. Later in the scene he silently finds Camp 14 on an internet map. Back in his apartment, he tells us that he wants to return to North Korea to farm, and explains how he likes looking at the border control towers as it is as close as he can get to going home. Again, one cannot help but feel that there is an even more heartbreaking and fascinating story here which is merely touched on.

During the interviews, instead of subtitling, Dong-Huyk's words are usually translated into an overly emotive voice-over, loud enough to be distracting and often totally covering the sound of the interviewee's speech, which is a curious stylistic choice given the agenda of the movie. This also means that the delicateness of Dong-Huyk's testament is often lost, at one point the forceful English narration telling us that, "I was only fourteen. I was scared", whereas somewhere behind this, the young escapee is speaking softly, struggling to give words to his memories. This is a sound that even if we don't understand the Korean, contains a power which cannot be replicated. Likewise, the position of the camera is not always comfortable for the viewer, at one point whilst describing torture, Dong-Huyk asking to take a break from the interview. This is not acknowledged, and we continue to watch him uncomfortably for several seconds. Again he asks, "please, turn the camera off". Combined with the hints at his loneliness, and conceding that he misses the "innocence" of camp life, the interview style does suggest that his freedom contains a bitter edge.

The chilling stories of two former torturers are also heard, but in contrast to the voice-over sections of Dong-Huyk, these are subtitled. The pair seem to be in much more control of the situation. "Can I make myself comfortable in this chair?" One asks, and later smiles as he recollects how the decision of life and death was, "ultimately left up to me". The other chain smokes and gets up to pace the room of his own accord before admitting that the prospect of Korean unification scared him in case he has to face his victims. It seems that, although in different guises, past demons populate the lives of both oppressor and oppressed.

Next Sunday from 2:30pm there is a double-bill for the price of one, starting with 'Wadjda', a tale of quiet rebellion in Saudi Arabia and the first movie from that country directed by a woman, before concluding at 5pm with 'Short Term 12', which tackles the subject of foster care in the U.S.A.

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19th Keswick Film Festival

22nd-25th February 2018


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